Frank Aikens Dirty War along the border

Frank Aiken’s War. The Irish Revolution 1916-23

Joe Carroll

This book on Frank Aiken focuses on his fighting role in the War of Independence and the Civil War. A book about him which appeared some months ago covered his roles as “a nationalist and an internationalist”, finishing with his distinguished diplomacy at the United Nations. Clearly, this gives a fuller picture of a complex figure largely unknown to later generations.

The Lewis book is an expanded account of the first two chapters of the earlier book and draws on the research there and on other recent historians to an extent which he acknowledges. The activities of Aiken’s Fourth Division of the IRA in the Armagh-South Down-North Louth area are exhaustively analysed. The book also gives a detailed account of Aiken’s vain attempts to avert the looming Civil War from his distant stronghold on the Border.

Aiken does not come well out of the “dirty war” which saw sectarian murders and brutal reprisals shared between IRA and local B-
Specials around the foothills of Slieve Gullion and scenic Camlough.

One was the notorious ‘Altnaveigh massacre’, in which Aiken’s men shot dead six members of four Presbyterian families in front of wives and children and burned their homes. There seems no doubt that the order came from Aiken who, the same night, was several miles away ambushing B-Specials who, he believed, had brutally and sexually assaulted the wife and maid of his close IRA associate James McGuill, owner of a Dromintee public house.

The author adds nothing new to previous accounts of these atrocities but notes that it has lived in the memory of the local unionist community that Aiken was a “vicious sectarian terrorist and a powerful example of the evils of Irish republicanism”. And yet within days of this deed, Aiken was giving orders that the IRA was to protect Protestants in Dundalk from Catholic attacks.

Aiken’s refusal around this time to engage his Fourth Division in the joint IRA offensive into the recently-created Northern Ireland state has also puzzled historians and lowered Aiken’s reputation as a fighting man among Northern republicans.

The fact that the offensive as planned was a hopeless cause probably explains why Aiken stalled for time.

It is a murky episode and Aiken suspected he was being set up as a fall guy by Michael Collins, Dick Mulcahy and Eoin O’Duffy back at headquarters in Dublin. While getting ready to take on the anti-Treaty IRA in the now inevitable Civil War, they also wanted to show that they had not accepted partition and were ‘invading’ the lost six counties.

Aiken retreated to Dundalk military barracks only to be captured by Free State troops. His men then rescued him from Dundalk Gaol by exploding a mine and Aiken rallied his men to re-take Dundalk from the sea some weeks later. But he soon abandoned the town and retreated into his south Armagh fastness.

He did some sabotage operations against Free State outposts, but continued to work for a peaceful settlement. It was too late and, when he succeeded Liam Lynch as Chief of Staff of the Irregulars, it was to end the fighting and order the dumping of republican arms.

The book ends on this sad note for Aiken. Fortunately, it was to become much better for him in the decades ahead. There is a striking photograph of Aiken on the cover of the book. He is surrounded by his senior officers and stares quizzically at the camera while clutching his pipe like a Sherlock Holmes.